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MacBook Pro vs. MacBook Air: how I made the choice

Rob Griffiths | April 16, 2014
Lately, I've been struggling with what's clearly a first-world problem: I have too many computers.

The results of the tests:

Some interesting tidbits that I found in my testing:

PCIe-Flash "hard drives" are incredibly fast. The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro was miles ahead of both other Macs, which are using SSDs.

Core i7 performance continues to improve. The Haswell-generation Core i7 in the new Retina MacBook Pro is roughly 30 to 60 percent faster (depending on the test) than the Arrandale version in the 2010 MacBook Pro; it's also 15 to 30 percent faster than the Ivy Bridge version in the 2012 MacBook Air.

My "power" MacBook Pro isn't so powerful. While I knew it was aging, and I knew it'd get trounced by the Retina machine, I was quite surprised to find that the 11-inch MacBook Air also crushed the MacBook Pro in nearly every test — despite the Pro's 2.66GHz CPU and discrete video card versus the Air's 2.0GHz CPU and onboard video.

Laptop graphics have come a long way. The new 13-inch Retina machine is miles ahead of the other laptops in graphics performance. When used at Retina resolution, its frames per second rate on most tests was roughly twice that of the other laptops — even when working in identically-sized windows.

Still, laptops aren't graphics powerhouses. While the new machine's graphics performance is impressive compared to its predecessors, it's nothing compared to a nearly three-year-old iMac. That iMac is at the top of the charts in all graphics tests.

Scaled mode does cause a hit in performance. Both the Unigine Valley and GpuTest tests showed a dramatic fall-off in graphics performance when running at 1680 by 1050. Not only are there more pixels to move around during the tests, but those pixels are simulated, causing the machine to work harder.

That's the bad news. The good news is that, even with the reduced performance, the new machine is still graphically faster than either of my previous laptops. (The 11-inch Air did beat the 13-inch Retina by one frame per second in the GpuTest, but that's basically a wash.)

The even better news is that this fall-off isn't seen when doing normal stuff like working with Finder and apps; there was only a minimal drop-off for both Xbench's Quartz and UI scores in the 1680-by-1050 mode. So as long as I'm not using the machine for OpenGL work or gaming, there's little impact on day-to-day use.

Wrapping it up

I've had my 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro for a couple months now, and it's turned out to be an ideal replacement for my previous two laptops. For a slight increase in size and weight over the 2012 11-inch MacBook Air, I've gained a much faster machine with not only a physically larger screen, but more pixels on that screen (even in Retina mode).


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